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Newry-born author on honing her screen writing skills in Los Angeles

Newry-born author Claire McGowan is honing her screen writing skills in Los Angeles in case her thriller books become a television series. Una Brankin reports

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Crime author Claire McGowan in Belfast

It's 8am in Los Angeles and Claire McGowan is not a morning person, by the sounds of her. The Newry-born thriller writer has left her home and creative writing job in London for six months of training for screen writing with Nickelodeon, the American cable and satellite television network, while putting the finishing touches to a new novel.

Writing for television is one of her goals and her LA experience will mean she could write her own screenplays for her compelling Paula Maguire novels -about a brilliant forensic psychologist - which have been optioned by the BBC.

"That was ages ago, there's been nothing so far," she says, sleepily. "I'd like to write for TV. It's very different to novel writing and this is one of the best places to learn.

"The climate is very dry, though, and the public transport is bad - you have to drive everywhere."

From Rostrevor originally, the 35-year-old Oxford University graduate is sharing an apartment in Burbank, close to the film studios, with three others from her course. She doesn't seem disappointed not to have spotted any celebrities yet. In fact, she's more enthusiastic about a recent trip to the very unstarry Carlingford village in Co Louth and concerned about the impact of Brexit on that stretch of the border.

"Carlingford's great - I went over on the new ferry at the new year," she says. "I am very worried about Brexit and the border, since my parents live right along it on Carlingford Lough. I really worry it will bring us back to the bad old days.

"It's also a worry that the Assembly has been suspended for so long. Living in London, I'm very aware that people outside Ireland have pretty much no idea what's going on there, and don't seem to grasp the importance of the border issue."

The Paula Maguire novels are set in a fictional border town, based on Newry, where the author was born in 1981, to a doctor (Barbara) and a teacher (Peter), who always had plenty of books in the house.

"It was one of the worst years of the Troubles," she remarks. "Even though not much happened in Newry, there'd be soldiers on the streets and we'd be terrified at checkpoints, getting searched.

"My writing deals with the aftermath of the Troubles. I don't have characters as villains, as such. They're ordinary people; they've been usually pushed to do what they do."

Her five-book Paula Maguire series now complete, Claire is delving into new territory with her next novel, due for publication in 2019. A psychological thriller, it's set "in the UK" and focuses on what she describes as a domestic war.

Claire has had her own fair share of conflict at home, having gone through a 'car crash' divorce, after unsuccessful marriage counselling in 2013, which meant she had to move out of the marital home she loved, a turn-of-the-century country outside London, and into a shabby flat on the outskirts of the city.

Her writing not yet proving lucrative, she found herself broke and physically sick with stress, which was compounded by the fact her ex was now living with a close mutual friend in the house she still part-owned. Depressed and under financial pressure, she took a low-level office job with a charity, only to be sacked for "not smiling enough" and making a typo in a tweet.

She admits she drank too much in the aftermath, during a renewed social life with her friends and a new boyfriend. He didn't last, but the support of her family and friends never wavered.

As she wrote in her blog: "Everyone in my Irish Catholic family - where divorce just didn't happen - was also gentle with me, when I'd been terrified to tell them my marriage wasn't working. I learned that even if I wasn't married any more, I was cared for. People loved me. They were kind to me and suddenly kindness mattered more than I'd ever realised."

She refers to the disastrous year of 2013 as her 'catastropiphany', in which she realised she didn't want to be married and living in the suburbs - "the fancy wedding and the matching china mean nothing if you aren't happy". The personal watershed led to her writing lighter 'women's fiction' under a pseudonym, Eva Woods, culminating in How To Be Happy, published last autumn in the UK and the US, courtesy of a healthy American publishing deal.

About friendship, the book was inspired by the #100HappyDays social media challenge Claire completed, which involved reading and writing (above all), and swimming outdoors, seeing friends and trying new food.

"I did have a tough year in 2013 but got through it mostly by writing, which really helped me and led to my second writing career as Eva Woods," she recalls. "I was probably pretty unhappy when I was doing that charity job - I'm better suited to being freelance, I think.

"I'd like to be able to afford never to have to get a job again. I gave up my job with the charity when I got my first advance in 2011, instead of buying the nice handbag I'd promised myself. And I gave up teaching creative writing to come here. American deals are pretty good."

Should her books ever make it to the big screen, the author has definite ideas for the casting.

"The two friends in How To Be Happy are very different. I'd have Emily Blunt - she was great in The Girl On The Train - and Karen Gillan from Dr Who.

"The two friends in How To Be Happy are very different. I'd have Emily Blunt - she was great in The Girl On The Train - and Karen Gillan from Dr Who.

"For Paula Maguire? I'd choose Valene Kane, from Newry (who recently starred in The Fall). It would be great to have someone from Newry."

Busy in LA, she's unaware of the countless allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Fr Malachy Finnegan, former principal of Newry's St Coleman's College. But she recalls the joyless nuns who taught her and the Catholic guilt instilled by the church.

"I remember being excited when it started to snow one day at school and a nun telling me I should be thinking about the homeless in the snow," she says. "There was this sense of pessimism. My great-aunt, who's now passed away, would never say anything might happen in the future without saying or writing: 'If god spares us'!

"Growing up in the Eighties meant a lot of anxiety about the Troubles, which I suppose I've put into the books. But we were always comfortable. I spent a lot of time in my auntie's house, and I've based the home of one of my character's on it. I try not to base any character on people in real life, however, because it doesn't feel creative to do that."

Nowadays, home for Claire and her freelance musician boyfriend Scott Bramley (36) - currently visiting her in LA - is an end-of-terrace in south London. The couple met three years ago on the online dating app OKCupid.

"I had a mad rush to make it liveable before I came to LA - it was a bit of a state," she says.

"I bought some lovely mid-century modern furniture, which was often cheaper than Ikea and didn't need assembling; although we did have to take the wardrobe apart because it wouldn't fit up the stairs.

"Unlike in the past, when I sometimes only had a hazy idea of our finances, I now make sure I'm always on top of my money. I work hard so I can avoid having to take another office job - smiling more is just not in my skill set…"

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Crime author Claire McGowan in Belfast
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Claire McGowan with her boyfriend Scott Bramley
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Claire McGowan
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Emily Blunt
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Karen Gillan